I of course pay great tribute to the activities in York, which have been going on for a long time; they are nothing new. I know exactly what has been done there, and I congratulate York on that.
If the populations are sufficiently cowed in those countries, worse often follows, including systematic torture, long-term, indefinite detention, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group—the PHRG—which has worked cross party since 1976 to raise greater awareness of these matters, I have seen this kind of pattern repeat itself time and again.
Take Burma. We have been raising concerns about the Rohingya for at least a decade. This is nothing new. They have been cruelly persecuted and ruthlessly dehumanised for a very long time. Despite, or perhaps even because of, limited attempts to democratise recently, minority communities in Burma remain very vulnerable—and none more so than the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and vilified by many in Burma, who have come to believe that they do not belong in that country, and that they can be abused, chased out and killed.
Although the international community did not commit the terrible crimes culminating in the crisis we now face, we bear some responsibility. We did not do enough to prevent the situation from escalating. We did not do enough to call out officials and hold them to account, whether that be the military, which is carrying out the campaign of ethnic cleansing—it is perhaps even genocide—or the elected politicians, such as Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many of these issues were raised in a recent report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. Its summary says:
“This crisis was sadly predictable, and predicted, but the FCO warning system did not raise enough alarm. There was too much focus by the UK and others in recent years on supporting the ‘democratic transition’ and not enough on atrocity prevention and delivering tough and unwelcome messages to the Burmese Government about the Rohingya.”
Take Yemen, where there is a humanitarian crisis of extraordinary proportions, much of which is man-made, caused by ongoing armed conflict. The UK and others continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but have frankly not done enough to ensure that the Saudi-led coalition complies with international humanitarian law and does not actively prevent desperately needed aid from getting through. The Houthis are also responsible for breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights violations, and we must work with them, too—but the UK is not selling them weapons.
Take Turkey, where last year’s attempted coup has been used as another pretext to further curtail many rights and silence many peaceful critics. The UK and others in the international community have been far too ready to buy into the Turkish narrative that the threat of Gülenists—or terrorists, or whatever—is so dangerous that it justifies the shutting down of the independent media, the hollowing out of opposition parties and the arrest and detention of tens of thousands of academics, journalists, judges, lawyers and political activists, as well as non-governmental organisation representatives, including some from Amnesty International.
Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights” campaign raises such situations of concern by focusing on individual cases that illustrate wider problems. The campaign also serves to highlight the importance of taking action to protect individual defenders, for they are like the canaries in a coalmine: when they are being attacked, it must serve as a warning sign and a wake-up call that the Governments concerned are on a downward path so far as human rights are concerned.
For example, the Istanbul 10 are 10 people who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights in Turkey, and are now themselves in danger. They include Idil Eser, of Amnesty International, and Özlem Dalkıran, of Avaaz and the Citizens’ Assembly, who are under investigation for terrorism-related crimes—an absurd accusation intended to put an end to their human rights activism.
There is also prominent Egyptian lawyer Azza Soliman, who has dedicated her life to defending victims of torture, arbitrary detention, domestic abuse and rape, and who is now labelled a spy and a threat to national security. She has been put under surveillance, targeted by smear campaigns and harassed by security forces and pro-Government media outlets. She faces three trumped-up charges, as part of the politically motivated “case 173”—the foreign funding case, which targets NGOs—and, if found guilty, she will be sent to prison. The PHRG has had the honour of hosting Azza Soliman in Parliament and will continue to follow her case closely.
Prominent Palestinian human rights defenders Issa Amro and Farid al-Atrash face prison sentences for their peaceful campaigning against illegal Israeli settlements in the city of Hebron in the occupied west bank. Award-winning housing activist Ni Yulan, who has defended Beijing residents against forced eviction for nearly 20 years, faced harassment, surveillance, restrictions on her movements, detention and physical attacks. She has used a wheelchair since being badly beaten by the police in 2002. LGBTIQ activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were killed by members of the armed group Ansar al-Islam, which is linked to al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. Little progress has been made on bringing the perpetrators to account.
What tools does the international community, including the UK, have to end violations and to ensure that those instigators, facilitators and perpetrators of abuses are held to account? First, there is the UN Security Council, which remains an important mechanism. I am aware that the UK, with its permanent seat and through our indefatigable ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, has raised a number of important issues, such as serious humanitarian crises in Syria and Lake Chad basin, with a view to getting the international community to take action. However, as all my hon. Friends know, the UN Security Council so often does not work for the benefit of those in desperate need—at least, in part, because we cannot get states with veto powers to refrain from preventing initiatives from getting off the ground.
Secondly, international justice, such as through the International Court of Justice, was also a great hope of ensuring that the perpetrators of serious international crimes are punished, particularly when the states where the crimes were committed either would or could not do so in their own courts. That should also have a significant preventive effect, by getting those thinking of carrying out such crimes to think again, in the knowledge that they would someday be held to account.
The international community has had some notable successes in assisting in obtaining justice, particularly in connection with the Balkans, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, but far too many people with blood on their hands are able to walk away freely with little if any concern about having to stand before a judge any time soon. Many states, including the US, China and Russia, are still not state parties to the Rome statute, and a number of African states are threatening to pull out. Referrals to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council are very difficult to secure.
The UK continues to support the ICC’s work, not least with funding, but international justice all too often is not working for the victims, such as those in Syria, Sudan and Yemen. For instance, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir continues to be at liberty, despite having been indicted by the ICC for genocide and war crimes in Darfur. When al-Bashir visited South Africa in 2015, Zuma’s then Government ignored their legal obligations and refused to arrest him. That was powerfully highlighted in The Observer’s editorial last Sunday, headed “World justice is failing the innocent when tyrants kill with impunity”. It quotes the current ICC chief prosecutor, who released her annual report this month. She believes it is imperative to close the “impunity gap” and says:
“What is required, today more than ever, is greater recognition of the need to strengthen the Court and the evolving system of international criminal justice. It is up to States Parties, first and foremost, as custodians of the Rome Statute, to stand firmly by its values and further foster its positive impact in practice.”
I return to the UK’s role specifically. It does not help that the UK Government often undermine their status as an international human rights champion by turning a blind eye when one of their allies or competing national interests are involved. Continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia does not help us when we are trying to get others on board to improve the situation in Syria. It does not help the UK either when at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK Government try to water down resolutions against Bahrain because they want to continue believing that Bahrainis are on the path to reform, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, such as the ongoing judicial persecution of Nabeel Rajab, the reprisals against family members of human rights defender Sayed al-Wadaei, continuing reports of the use of torture by state officials and the resumption of military trials against civilians.
With the UK Government and Parliament preoccupied by the reassessment of our relationship with the European Union, I worry that we are taking our eye off the ball. The term “global Britain” keeps being bandied about, but what does it actually mean? There is a lot of talk about Britain becoming a pre-eminent trading nation, pushing for trade agreements with many countries across the globe, but we have to ask, trade at what cost and to what effect? The PHRG meets too many people from around the world who are negatively impacted by the operations of mining and other resource extraction companies, some of which are based in the UK. Those people are lobbying for clean water, against land expropriation and for better local services, and they are often threatened, attacked and stigmatised for being anti-development and anti-patriotic.
Finally, I look forward to the UK Government talking a lot more about values that will contribute to making the world fairer, less violent and more humane and, even more importantly, taking concrete action with members of the international community to ensure that those values—our values—are at the heart of our relations with other states and are a reality for many more people.